WASHINGTON -- Jim Bland understands the unique challenges the Army faces recruiting in urban centers. Bland grew up in one of the 22 cities with growing populations that the Army identified as having limited exposure to the service.Born on Chicago's South Side, Bland now serves as a civilian aide to the secretary of the Army, known as CASA, for northern Illinois. Bland said young Chicagoans often don't join the Army for a variety of reasons, often due to not being close to military veterans."There are not many role models for kids in the city who have served," Bland said. "Within our cities, the more touchpoints there are to the military or veterans, the higher propensity it is for someone to be interested or at least curious. That's really the goal; for people to seek out or learn about the Army."Bland and almost 100 CASAs from across the U.S. and territories attended the annual CASA conference in Washington last week where they heard from Army senior leaders and exchanged ideas on how to help potential recruits learn about the service. They also met with Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and held seminars on how to achieve his priorities.Officially recognized in 1922, the CASA program's purpose was to quickly train leaders for the Army. In 1950, the program's intent changed to focus on the link between military and community and remains much the same today: to improve relations between the Army and America's communities.CASAs help tell the Army story, work closely with each state's National Guard to strengthen community connections, help liaison with the U.S. Army Reserve, assist transitioning Soldiers, and play a crucial role with recruiting. As the Army once again looks to make its end-strength goals, the CASAs' role takes increased importance, especially in large cities like Chicago.Angela Ritz, director of the CASA program, explained that each CASA possesses his or her own unique skill set, as some are community leaders, businessmen or former military. They come from different backgrounds and age groups. One current CASA played NBA basketball. Another is a former astronaut. Actor Sean Astin served as a CASA for 10 years during the Clinton and Bush administrations."The real common denominator is a CASA's ability to connect to key community influencers and a love of the Army," Ritz said.Some CASAs have 30-plus years' experience in the Army, such as retired Col. Kevin Shwedo, who now operates as the executive director to the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. Shwedo has also served as a cabinet member under former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley and current Governor Henry McMaster."The secretary regularly reaches out to CASAs in his travels," Ritz said. "He often says 'CASAs are my first phone call into the city and the last handshake as I head back to D.C.'"CASAs use their special connections to serve as liaisons between the military and civic leaders, politicians, school officials and people of influence. And each CASA must submit biannual reports to McCarthy on what efforts they have made to advance the secretary's priorities.EACH COMMUNITY IS DIFFERENTBland, along with a second Chicago-area CASA, must take on the challenge of recruiting in a metropolitan sprawl where historically the Army has struggled to meet its recruiting goals.Raised by a Chicago police officer and a mother who served as a public school teacher, public and military service piqued Bland's interest as a teenager. Bland also had two cousins who both served in the military and attended West Point.Now working as a private equity investor on the city's North Side, Bland understands the business community. In a metropolitan area that houses more than 7 million people, he said the key to building recruiting numbers can be identifying key influencers who can spread stories on the benefits of military service. Many of those people can be found both in Fortune 500 companies and in small businesses."They tend to be patriotic; they've achieved a lot of success," Bland said. "They've worked hard. They've lived the American dream. Those are people that are going to be very receptive to the Army story. Because they understand that the security the Army provides allows them to operate freely in the world."In Chicago's inner city neighborhoods, access to public schools can be difficult. Bland said Army recruiters can only enter schools at certain time periods. Often CASAs must step in and use their relationships with school superintendents and in some cases, city mayors, to help recruiters gain access to students. Bland said that non-profit organizations present ample opportunities to meet potential recruits, as they have engrained themselves in communities and can relate to students.Shwedo has taken advantage of his connection to South Carolina Superintendent of Education Molly Mitchell Spearman and the state's legislature to help recruiters gain access or opportunities to reach recruits in the state's public schools.Bland said many city residents may not be aware of the technical proficiency necessary for Soldiers in today's Army. For one, Soldiers who operate tanks or combat vehicles will develop technical skills that could translate to productive civilian careers, he said. With the Army's focus on modernization and cybersecurity, the service will continue to become increasingly technical, Bland said.While the Army has been rebuilding its connection with recruits in urban centers like Chicago, the service looks to retain and strengthen its stronghold in known military towns, such as Columbia, South Carolina."We're represented virtually in every community in America," Shwedo said. "When you're represented in those communities, the people have a tendency to rally around you. And we can't afford to lose that connection."Shwedo meets regularly with South Carolina recruiting battalion commanders to provide continuity to the command. He also uses his influence within the state government to voice the Army's concerns as well as bring light to issues concerning veterans.CASAs work as volunteers and often must work outside their full-time jobs. Bland said most CASAs perform out of a robust dedication to the Army."When I left the Army, I tried to stay very engaged with the community," said Shwedo, who served as the deputy commander of Fort Jackson, South Carolina.After graduating from West Point in 1997, Bland served eight years in the active Army, National Guard and the Army Reserve. Afterward, he wanted to continue to contribute to serving the Army. Working as a CASA, he has the opportunity to achieve that on a larger scale."We're all leaders in our communities," Bland said. "We're passionate about the Army. We love the Army."Ritz said: "The CASAs come together annually at a national conference and regularly network and consult with each other to share ideas throughout the year. The biggest benefit of the annual conference are the connections and relationships that are made between the CASAs and with the Army senior leaders."There are currently 120 CASA positions in the U.S. and its territories. CASAs are appointed as unpaid special government employees for a two-year term and may serve as a CASA for up to 10 years.Related Links:Follow Joe Lacdan on TWITTERArmy News ServiceArmy.mil: Worldwide NewsSTAND-TO! Meet Your ArmyThe Army CASA program